Disney princesses have mixed effects on children

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Disney princesses and little girls are commonly associated with each other, leaving one BYU associate professor wondering what the effects may be.

Three years ago, Sarah Coyne, faculty in the School of Family Life, decided to research whether Disney princesses have an influence on little girls. This research was in part inspired by her three-year-old daughter.

Sarah Coyne gives a lecture about her research at BYU.
Sarah Coyne gives a lecture about her research at BYU. (Photo by Ari Davis)

“What are the effects of exposure to Disney princess- related media on gender stereotyping, body image, pro-social behavior and aggression in early childhood? That’s what we wanted to find out,” Coyne said.

The research team predicted that higher levels of Disney princess exposure would lead to more female gender stereotyping, higher levels of pro-social behavior, worse body image and lower aggression.

Three hundred seven preschoolers, from three different schools, were tested by first measuring how much the student identified with a Disney character, how much they watched Disney movies and how much they played with Disney toys. These factors determined their exposure to the Disney princess culture. Additionally, they surveyed the children’s parents and teachers to understand more about the child’s tendencies.

Coyne found that the children who were more indoctrinated into the princess lifestyle had higher pro-social behavior, more female gender stereotyping, lower aggression and better body image.

Better body image was one element that was not close to the team’s predictions. However, after testing the same students a year later in kindergarten, there was no longer a correlation to princesses and body image; better body image did not increase or stay the same over time.

“There is mixed evidence: princesses are not great in that they promote gender stereotypes, but we also found some positives — like better body image and more pro-social behavior,” Coyne said.

Coyne presented this research at a lecture Thursday, Sept. 19, to a BYU audience. She spoke about the positive traits that princesses stand for and found that those girls with more Disney princess exposure are actually kinder as children, which is related to pro-social behavior.

“After seeing children’s reactions to princesses, it is very real to them, and as cheesy as it sounds, it is like complete magic to them. They believe in that character and what that character stands for,” said Brynne Turville, a former cast member for Disney Entertainment.

Even though Disney princesses can have a positive effect on preschoolers, it doesn’t mean Coyne believes that all Disney, all the time, is the best choice.

“I would say watch princess shows in moderation — like not more than once a week. It is important that parents discuss the content with their daughters, and this should also help mediate some of the negative effects,” Coyne said.

Coyne’s daughter is starting to leave behind the princess world, and Coyne wonders who her new princess figures will be. Verônica Destro, a BYU student from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, who attended Coyne’s lecture, gave her opinion on who her role models are as a college student.

“I look up to any woman who is confident and kind. Throughout my life I have met some women like that and I try to follow their examples. I do not look at celebrities to follow their example, because I do not know them. What media shows about them is not always true, and there is no way to know if it is true,” Destro said.

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